Despite the high numbers of civilians affected, the crisis remains neglected with the humanitarian response plan funded by only 38 per cent so far this year. Parties to the conflict also continue to disregard the ceasefire agreement.
Shelling, violent clashes, landmines and unexploded remnants of war have become a brutal normality in the everyday life of Ukrainians trying to survive. The protracted crisis continues to damage civilian infrastructure such as water and sanitation facilities adding more challenges to an already worn-out population.
Every month, over one million civilians risk their lives by crossing the over 420-kilometer-long so-called “contact line” which separates government-controlled areas from non-government-controlled areas, to collect their pension, have ID documents issued, reach markets and health care, meet their family members or look after their remaining property. People and mainly elderly are forced to wait for hours in the severe cold or under the scorching summer sun before they are allowed to pass the many checkpoints dividing the country.
A deteriorating economy coupled with high levels of stress, fear and human loss have left many with serious mental health issues. Elderly are left on their own without the means to properly fend for themselves.
Civilians continue to pay the highest price of the ongoing conflict and as we enter a new year, more people are affected by the devastating impact of the crisis than before.
This photo essay was previously published by Al Jazeera.
The map of Ukraine before 2014 painted on a separation wall at the checkpoint between government and non-government-controlled areas in Stanystia Luhanska in eastern Ukraine.
Iliya, 5, is watching TV while his father Viktor has a short rest in the kitchen. The youngest girl Aryna, 2, is having her afternoon nap. Their house was heavily damaged during the early days of war, and the family spent many nights in the basement sleeping close together to keep warm.
Liliia Poturoieva, 39, mother of six, soon seven children, lives close to the contact line in eastern Ukraine. One midnight in February 2015 another round of heavy shelling began and hit Liliia’s house. That night she saved the life of her youngest son. “The blast wave knocked out all the windows in the house, but I covered my baby who slept in his bed right under the window with my own body and the glass pieces hit me in the back”. After that night Liliia began having problems with her speech. The stuttering is a daily reminder of the war.
Iryna is 10 years old, and Liliia’s eldest daughter. She still remembers the night their house was hit. Iryna and her sibling all suffer from post-traumatic stress. It is hard to concentrate at school and she has nightmares and anxiety. “I am afraid that my house will be destroyed again. After all, we hear the sounds of shots every night,” said her mother Liliia.
Vasyl Akymenko, 69, lives in the frontline village of Stanytsia Luhanska. In September 2014 his house was destroyed by large shelling and his wife died under the rubble. “Only on the fourth day after the shelling I began to understand what had happened. I buried my wife without understanding what was going on around me. Everything was done unconsciously. The shelling did not stop during the funeral. No one could say goodbye to her,” Vasil said.
Vasyl and his late wife (on the photo) spent 45 years together raising two sons in the house that was bombed. For two years after the attack, Vasyl lived alone in a cold garage before he was able to rebuild a house with the help of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“I was living with my husband Mykola for many years in Zolotarivka village. I worked as a storekeeper, my husband worked as a plumber. We brought up three children. We had everything we needed for a normal and stable life: a house, car, walking tractor, cow, pigs, chickens,” said Liudmyla. Her village became one of the first hotspots of armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. “On the 17 July 2014 during the night we had very heavy shelling. One of the shells hit our house and completely destroyed it. Our house was burning for 3 days. Only one chicken remained alive. We lost everything we had. When we went out from the bomb shelter and my husband saw all this, his legs failed to walk. We took him to the hospital, and they diagnosed him with cancer”.
8 months after their home was bombed, Liudmyla’s husband Mykola passed away. “I still remember the day we first met. It was in a movie theatre. It was love at first sight,” Liudmyla smiled. She often visits his grave at the local graveyard, decorating it with colourful flowers.
Liudmyla has buried her husband, brother and mother and feels lonely in life. “Now my heart and soul are petrified with grief,” she said.
To receive pension and other social benefits, inhabitants living in the non-government-controlled areas have to show up in person in the government-controlled areas every month. The journey is long, exhausting and costly. “Nobody worries about us. We are forgotten here,” said Halyna, 58.
Many families have kept the shrapnel that damaged their houses. A visible reminder of the war that many still hear the sounds of every night along the contact line.
“I missed my home”. Mr. Polieshko decided to return to his village located by the contact line after some time in Russia despite damages to his house, loss of income and frequent shelling.
Oleksander is 32 years old and lives with his mother in a small flat in Shchastia town close to the contact line. He has been injured in two attacks and underwent a complex surgery in 2015. The injuries have made it nearly impossible for him to work and have an income.
“We have 300-400 UAH (approximately 10-12 Euros) to spend on food per week. This is enough to buy bread, sunflower oil, some potatoes and the cheapest cereal. Our regular lunch is soup and porridge. I can’t remember the last time I ate meat,” Oleksandr said.
Temperatures reach far below zero during the heavy winter months in eastern Ukraine, leaving the conflict affected population vulnerable to the cold as they try to survive in partly damaged houses and with low incomes.